Lübeck's Dance of Death

Lübeck's dance of death, Canon, nobleman and physician
Canon, nobleman and physician.
The chapel

The canon(1)

Mi dunckt, it is mi noch to vroch,
Van minen Prunden hadde ik genoch
To bruken went her min Leven;
Late mi des Dansses nach begheven.
Nu scholde ik vullen min Schrin,
Dine velen Worde don mi grote Pin.
Late mi doch Gade denen bat,
Den ik in miner Jöget vergat.
Methinks it's still too soon for me.
I had enough of my office income
to make good use of in my life, until now.
Let me renounce this dance.
Now I should fill my chest (shrine).
Your many words give me great pain.
Let me then serve God better,
because I forgot it in my youth.

Death answers the canon

(8 lines are missing)
(8 lines are missing)

The mayor

(8 lines are missing)
(8 lines are missing)

Death answers the mayor

Grot Lon schaltu entfan,
Vor din Arbeit, dat du hefst ghedan,
Wil di God dusentvult belonen,
Unde in deme ewighen Levende kronen.
Mer dine Bedrechlicheit mede
Mochte di bringen in groten Unvrede.
Wultu umme dine Sunde ruwich syn
Volghe na, Meister Medecin.
Great wages shall you receive.
For your work that you have done,
God will reward you thousandfold,
and in the eternal life crown [you].
But your fraudulence may also
bring you in great strife.(2)
Will you regret your sins!
Follow after, Master Medicine.

The physician

Ik hadde wol Vordrach, mochte it wesen.
Vele Minsken hebbe ik ghenesen,
De van groter Suke leden Not.
Mer jeghen di klene noch grot
En helpet nine Kunst noch Medecin.
Nu bevole ik mi sulven de Pin.
Van deme Dode bin ik beseen,
Wat Ordel dat mi schal bescheen.
I would like postponement, if it might be;
I have cured many people
who were suffering from great diseases.
But against you [helps neither] small nor great;
neither [medical] art nor medicine helps.
Now I surrender myself to the pain.
I have been looked at by Death,
what[ever] fate that shall happen to me.

Death answers the physician

Recht Ordel schaltu entfan,
Na den Wercken, de du hefst ghedan.
Du hefst ghedan, dat God wol wet,
Mengen in grot Eventur gheset,
Den Armen swarlik beschat,
Des he vaken billik hadde to bat.
Al nemestu grote Summen darvan,
Wokerer,(3) volghe van Stunden an.
You shall receive a just sentence
according to the works that you have done.
You have, God knows this well,
brought many into great danger.
Taken large fees from the poor,
that often rightly belonged to him.
Always you took great sums for it.
Usurer,(3) follow from this moment.

3 persons from 1701 Concerning the order of text and pictures - see the note on the previous page. You can tell the nobleman by his hunting falcon and the physician by his urine glass. There's a much better reproduction of this section available here: The Dance of Death in Lübeck.

The physician seems to break the over-all sequence with alternating clergy and laity. This is because the physician is considered a cleric — having studied at the university — and in contrast to the "lowly" barber-surgeon / bonesetter who is regarded as a craftsman. The same thing holds true in Des Dodes Dantz for the physician and the student, and in Paris and London for the astronomer, the physician and the lawyer.

The distinction is even clearer in Berlin's dance of death. All the 14 clerics are placed to the left of Christ and here we find the doctor with the urine glass among priests and monks.

Notice the three figures at the extreme right in the black and white picture. In contrast to the rest of the painting, these persons are not dressed in medieval costumes. Apparently they were added by Anton Wortmann when he copied the painting in 1701.

St. Mary's church, 1463 St. Mary's church, 2001 With the mayor we are now meeting the citizens of Lübeck (there were no nobility in the free and imperial city) and the background in this picture and the previous one shows closely what Lübeck looked like back in 1463.

Most of the buildings are gone today, but you can clearly see St. Mary's church. Either the city has grown or the church has shrunk, because today you have to go up in the tower of St. Jacob's church to get a good picture.

It's a special characteristic of Lübeck's dance of death that the city appears in the background but this goes to show that the dance of death is a mirror of society.

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)

Canon...: a priest attached to a cathedral.
At that time Lübeck had 4 mayors who were chosen among the leading burgher families. As leaders of the council the mayors had legislative power, but at the same time the mayors functioned as judges and thus also had judicial power. That's why the mayor gets such a nice treatment in St. Mary's - the burghers' church in Lübeck.

The mayor is warned against his own fraudulence - this is because the mayor in Lübeck's dance of death takes over the role played by lawyers and solicitors in other dances of death.

Wokerer / Usurer . . . : Jacob von Melle gives us two versions of the text, and in the less known version this dancer is not an usurer but a citizen.

For more details, see the page about von Melle: Usurer or Citizen?


Up to Text and Photos